Mayor Fischer's 2021 State of the City address

January 14, 2021

 

 

Mayor Greg Fischer delivered his 2021 State of the City address on Jan. 14. Transcript: 

Thank you, and thanks to the Louisville Rotary Club for giving me this opportunity every year to report on the state of our city.

I wish we could be together, as we were last year at the beautiful new Y on West Broadway, where we focused on Louisville’s children and how we must prepare for their future, even though we can’t fully predict what the future will offer.

In last year’s speech, I said, “We don’t know what major events will impact the lives of today’s Louisville kids.”  

Well here we are, one year later, we know our children will carry with them vivid and scarring memories of 2020 – and a still uncertain impact –

of COVID-19,

of stay-at-home orders and NTI,

of racial justice protests in the name of Breonna Taylor

And of rioters storming the U.S Capitol in a violent assault on the democratic process.

Some have watched parents struggle through job loss and financial ruin, and others lost family members to COVID-19 or to gun violence, which tragically reached an all-time high.

They will remember how the adults in their lives reacted to these events. And there’s no shame in our admitting that we were shaken at times, and heartbroken, infuriated, worried, and exhausted.  I know I’ve felt all that all last year, and so has every mayor, every leader, every parent and every friend I’ve talked to.

These are natural human reactions to what we’ve experienced, and the pain has not been spread equally. As so often happens, people of color, immigrants and people at the lowest end of the income spectrum have been hardest hit.

But we have all been tested in ways we’d never expected. And while sometimes those tests found us wanting, we persevere, we keep moving, keep learning, keep working to heal our city and move forward. 

The best thing we can do and the most important choice we can make right now is to commit ourselves to finding our unique opportunities amidst the challenges, to believing in ourselves, in each other and in the possibilities of 2021 and beyond. And to use the lessons we have learned to attack and overcome the challenges that confront us:

  • Eliminating COVID-19,
  • Rebuilding our economy,
  • Advancing our goals of racial equity and justice
  • And the related challenges of reimagining public safety and reducing gun violence.

Let’s take those one at a time.

First, COVID-19.

Our goal is that next year’s State of the City will be delivered in person, over a beautiful shared Rotary lunch.

And school buses will be taking children to in-person classes. Visitors will be filling our downtown hotels, restaurants, museums, and convention center.

You’ll be going back to your favorite restaurant, seeing concerts and plays and ballgames with your friends and family – without masks and without worry.

Thanks to the work of scientists, researchers, and public health staffers - that prospect is now a possibility, if we can vaccinate enough of our population. 

Our Public Health team is working with our hospital systems, pharmacies, and other community partners, along with state and federal agencies, to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible and to make sure the distribution is efficient and equitable.

Last week, we opened our first drive-thru vaccination site at Broadbent Arena. This Louisville Metro Government effort, aided by outstanding partners like the Kentucky Nurses Association and a great group of volunteers, is an initiative we can all be extremely proud of. Our initial focus there is frontline healthcare workers. While we’d initially projected vaccinating 1,000 people in the first week, things went so well we vaccinated twice that many last week. And this week, we’ll do twice more again with 4,000 vaccinations.

The ability to distribute this lifesaving vaccine is a hope-filled and bright spot - but we have to be aware that we are still fighting a grim battle against COVID-19.

We just passed 700 COVID deaths in our city. Unfortunately, we’re probably going to reach 800 in the no so distant future.

So, for now, we have to keep wearing masks and social distancing and doing what we can individually and collectively to keep more lives from being needlessly lost. 

Nobody understands that better than our healthcare heroes. One of the most gratifying moments of this crisis has been seeing healthcare professionals get their shots. They have risked their lives and health, sacrificed themselves and their families to serve their patients, too many of whom never went home.  Our healthcare heroes have earned our respect a million times over.

So have people like Louisville Firefighter Michael Branch, who contracted the virus last March, recovered and went back to work.

Since then, he’s donated plasma to help other COVID-19 patients recover. He said, "Because we are living in history right now, I want to look back and say, 'I did my part to contribute.”

And you have, Firefighter Branch.Thank you!

Our heroes include JCPS school nurses.

They started receiving the vaccine last week.  And we’ll be vaccinating teachers soon – doing all we can to get our children back to the classroom for in-person learning as quickly as possible.

President-Elect Biden has vowed to dramatically increase the speed of vaccinations nationwide, with a target of 100 million doses in his first 100 days so we can recover from this virus more quickly. That would equate to about 230,000 Louisvillians – a goal that we stand ready to achieve and surpass. So please, roll up your sleeves and “get your shot on” when this lifesaving vaccine is available to you. Taking the vaccine will help keep you safe, and it’s the pathway forward for your family, our community and our economy.  

In the meantime, the pandemicis still surging. So, again: keep wearing a mask, keep your distance and limit trips out and interactions with other people.  And I know that’s hard.

This is Penny, my 14-month-old granddaughter. I shared her photo with you last year. She lives out of state, so I haven’t been able to hug and kiss on her for a year now, so you can imagine how much I want a family reunion long-delayed by this dastardly virus.

I know many of you feel the same way about your families. That day is coming for us all. Let’s do what it takes to get us all there.

That community spirit is what we need to take on these challenges, including rebuilding a more equitable economy.

The pandemic’s toll includes jobs and businesses lost, and the anxiety of lost income and lost opportunities, or choosing between working or keeping yourself or a vulnerable family member safe.

So, the vaccine is great news for our economic, physical and mental health.

There’s also good news for our city’s economic core business clusters: 

Manufacturing is still strong. I’ve spoken with the leaders at Ford and GE Appliances. GE has just come off two very large appliance line expansions this past year, and both companies are optimistic about this year and the future. Logistics and e-commerce prospects are looking really good, too. UPS Worldport is one of the major hubs for vaccine distribution.

Some companies in our tech sector have thrived in this challenging year, and many others in our Business Services cluster have adapted to remote working.

Louisville is also home to more health and aging innovation company headquarters than anywhere in America. And this sector is poised for even more growth. I am excited to welcome Passport Health Plan by Molina Healthcare. They have hired almost 500 local employees and will be hiring even more. 

Across the country, tourism and hospitality have been hit especially hard. Locally, we have about 65,000 hospitality workers, about 2/3 of whom have been laid off or furloughed. Metro Government has been working to help our incredible restaurants – by suspending fees, expanding outdoor seating, launching grant and loan funds to assist restaurants and other small businesses. Our Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant Program started in July and has distributed over $27 million.

More funding from the new federal relief package will help, but the needs of our small businesses are still really great, so we all must do what we can to support them.

And, our tourism and hospitality and food and beverage sectors; they will recover.  Bourbon has been thriving – which is good news for bourbon tourism – or Bourbonism – which is critical to those sectors. And we know that once people are comfortable traveling again, we’ll be really well positioned to rebound because we’re a day’s drive from two-thirds of the U.S. population.

Before the pandemic, we were attracting 16 million visitors a year. Returning to that level will take time, but it will happen, and it will be great for our economy and particularly our downtown.

And revitalizing our downtown is a critical focus for my team and our community partners. We understand that some form of telework is most likely here to stay. Office and business needs will change. But I believe in our downtown and its assets – our hotels, restaurants, cultural institutions and venues. We will innovate and take advantage of the opportunities that come with our challenges.

And we are working with our business and tourism partners to revitalize downtown. LMPD visibility has increased, and Metro Government is investing an additional $1 million in our Clean Collaborative Plan. Also, we’re working with the Coalition for The Homeless and community partners so that the heart of our city can continue to drive economic growth for years to come. 

We all know that a vibrant, healthy downtown is essential for any thriving city. And our downtown was thriving and experiencing an amazing renaissance prior to the pandemic. That’s why we’re putting together a downtown revitalization team to identify and prioritize actions to speed the recovery of downtown once we’re out of this pandemic. In some cases, we’re developing new strategies, in others, we’re building on and adapting existing plans. This will be a partnership of community stakeholders, including businesses, institutions, arts, culture and media organizations.

We want to work together to prepare for the day when COVID is behind us and downtown is ready to welcome workers, residents and visitors. To do that, we have to identify the steps needed to maximize the potential of our built environment - office, residential, restaurant, hospitality and retail spaces, along with clean, green and safe public spaces for people to gather and enjoy. 

There’s also good news for our economy in the most recent federal COVID Relief package, which will provide direct assistance to individuals and renters, unemployment insurance, vaccine distribution and more.

It’s important to note that that package does not include direct funding for state and local governments to address the budget shortfalls resulting from the economic downturn. A lot of American cities will be in dire straits and laying off key personnel, including first responders and public health staff. That said, President-elect Biden has said he is committed to providing more assistance to state and local governments, knowing how critical that is to keep important city services going for our residents during this pandemic crisis.

My team and I are in the early stages of planning the budget that I’ll present to Metro Council in April.  Partly because of earlier federal relief from the CARES Act, we don’t anticipate drastic reductions or layoffs.

But the cuts we had to make in Metro Government two years ago, when we eliminated several hundred positions, combined with the reduced revenue forecast as a result of Covid-19, will have an impact. Our workforce is now at about 5,100 employees, compared to about 5,600 just two years ago and 6,100 at merger.

We have an outstanding team of public service professionals at Metro Government – and I thank them and my partners on the Metro Council for their work, innovation, sacrifice and partnership in an incredibly challenging time.

But the reality is that while we have been able to balance our budget, a smaller workforce impacts our ability to render services to the people of our city, at a time when the needs are great.

And if you need any evidence of how great the need is, let’s talk about a fundamental need – like food. 

Look at Dare to Care – a great city partner and one of the top food bank operations in the country. They’ve seen a 20 percent increase in requests for help since the pandemic began. They’re now serving more than 200,000 people in the Louisville area.

Think about those folks, many for the first time, who’ve have had to say to a stranger, “I don’t have enough food to feed my children.” 

In a city and country as wealthy as ours, no one should go hungry. That’s why Metro Government has long supported Dare to Care and other non-profits through External Agency Funds, and through programs like March for Meals. March for Meals distributed over 83,000 frozen meals to seniors during the early days of the pandemic. We’re also investing millions in eviction prevention. As of December 31, our eviction prevention efforts have helped people in more than 13,000 Louisville households stay in their homes. 

We’re proud of that, but again, the need is much greater. That’s because we’re dealing with a serious problem in our local and national economy where we see an uneven, so called “K-Shaped” recovery, where high-income earners are mostly unaffected and low-income earners are struggling just to survive.

And that is fundamentally unsustainable.

Listen to this quote attributed to one of my heroes, Louisvillian and US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

We cannot price people out of the American dream and expect them to flourish.

Instead, we must work harder to create more opportunities and greater access to resources for everyone.

And we must start early, through partnerships like JCPS’ Academies of Louisville, which help students choose a career path during high school.

Or SummerWorks, our nationally recognized summer jobs program for young people. 

Or Code Louisville, which has now placed more than 500 graduates in tech careers.

We’re scaling Tech Louisville, which provides training in many west Louisville neighborhoods. And the Future of Work Initiative, our partnership with Microsoft, that’s working to grow and diversify our tech workforce. 

I’m really proud of these programs. They have changed lives and careers, and, in many cases, provided a path from poverty to a middle-class income and beyond.

And it’s really critical that we GROW, DEVELOP and DIVERSIFY our tech workforce as well as our overall workforce, because we have to address another key challenge going forward, and that’s the need to advance the cause of racial equity and racial justice in our city. 

When we talk about racial equity, we mean that because of both historic and contemporary 21st-century institutionalized racism, Black people have far fewer opportunities, face more discrimination, and far too often live shorter, harder lives than they should in a country with the abundant wealth of America.

That’s the painful reality of racism in America.  That’s the pain that helped fuel the racial justice protests in our streets in 2020, just like it fueled the protests 50 years ago – and that will fuel more protests in the future unless we change course.  In the past 10 years, Louisville Metro Government has made record investments to further the cause of racial equity, and it has nott been nearly enough.

We have to do more.

That’s why I’m committed to making racial equity a higher priority than ever before.

To do that, we must first acknowledge that we have not done enough to eradicate racism from our institutions, our policies and practices.  While there has been progress, so so much remains undone. These are challenges that exist all over the country, but it is our job to take care of our challenges in our hometown. For example, …

The Black poverty rate in Louisville is nearly 3 times the white poverty rate.

Blacks make up 22.4 percent of our population but own only 2.4 percent of our businesses.

The percentage of Blacks who own their own homes is half the percentage of whites.

And look at public health in west Louisville – average life expectancy is approximately 67 years, compared to the eastern half of Jefferson County, which is more than 70% white, where life expectancy is 82 years - a 15-year difference.

That’s horrifying – and completely unacceptable. As is the fact that this is by no means just a Louisville situation – those stats are mirrored in cities all across America.

These and countless other statistics and real-life experiences tell us that our systems are so broken they must be reformed and replaced.   And while we will do everything we can at the local level, the reality is that these systems will only fundamentally change with resource shifts at the state and national level. That’s why who we elect matters. That’s why voting and values matter. Particularly the values of compassion and equity and justice.

We need to rethink and reform how government, businesses, education, healthcare and other institutions operate so everyone has a fair shot at the American dream.

And while that’s more than we can accomplish locally by ourselves, we can make progress. We can create partnerships and opportunities to benefit all. That’s the goal of our Build Back Better, Together initiative, which we launched to help us recover from the COVID-19 economic downturn in a way that creates a more equitable and dynamic economy, an effort we launched even before the protests for racial justice.

Last month, I signed an Executive Order declaring racism a public health crisis, and, as part of that order, I released a plan for Advancing Racial Equity in seven key areas:

  • Public safety
  • Children and families
  • Black employment
  • Black wealth
  • Housing and Neighborhood investment
  • Health, and 
  • Voting

This plan includes strategies to…

Build Black wealth by increasing and supporting Black-owned businesses through financing, technical assistance, and business networking; and increasing Black home ownership through more down payment assistance, financing, and other supports.

Invest in affordable housing and eviction prevention and restoring disinvested neighborhoods through homeownership programs, and anti-displacement initiatives.

We will soon announce a loan loss guarantee pool of $1 million that’s designed to drive more of our financial institutions to issue loans to homeowners and businesses in west Louisville.

Looking ahead to March, we will welcome home both new and longtime residents to the brand-new Beecher Terrace!  We’ll start with the community living building, which will house folks who are at least 55 years young, and throughout the year, we’ll welcome more residents to the surrounding mixed-income apartments and townhomes in the historic Russell neighborhood.

As always, we will give first priority to people who lived in Beecher Terrace before the revitalization, because they’re the people this project is designed to benefit the most. And we’re working with Vision Russell and other community partners to further build the neighborhood while preventing displacement.

We’re also supporting children and families through Evolve502 by working to provide every child with wrap-around personal supports and the opportunity for a tuition-free college degree or specialized training in fields with shortages of skilled workers.

And you’ll notice that while some of our equity efforts are specifically targeted to the Black community, others are focused more broadly on fighting poverty, which is a trap that holds back children, families and communities of all races – and our city as a whole. 

These efforts help all of us by improving our tax base and increasing workforce skills and the spending power of our residents. They make our city healthier, create more opportunities and dignity in work, produce safer neighborhoods, and send a message that our city is dedicated to compassion, opportunity, equity and justice.  For all.

Some of these larger systemic issues require action at the state and federal level to address, like universal childcare, universal pre-K, and a living wage.  Those are critical to making the transformation we need, and we will fight for them – and other needed reforms. 

This session, Metro Government is pursuing a state legislative agenda that includes changes to state law that will promote our equity initiatives, including bail reform and voting rights, and providing greater transparency and accountability in police-involved disciplinary matters. 

One of the messages that resonated from the protests of last year was that achieving racial equity and justice demands reimagining public safety. 

And when we talk about public safety in Louisville, we have to acknowledge two fundamental facts: 

1) Our police officers are doing incredibly challenging, dangerous and essential work to serve and protect the people of our city.

2) Our police department, like other public and private institutions in our city and across America, must evolve in terms of its culture, its structure, recruiting, training, and practices in order to strengthen police-community legitimacy, address the need for racial justice and help us create a safer city.

Over the past several months, we’ve made changes to bring more transparency and accountability to our police force. That includes …

Signing Breonna’s Law, which bans no-knock warrants and expands requirements for use of body cameras.

Implementing landmark reforms such as incentivizing officers to live in some of our more challenged neighborhoods, changing use of force policies, and exploring crisis intervention models that do not always require a police response.

We’ve established our Civilian Review Board and Office of Inspector General.

And naming Erika Shields as our permanent Chief of Police after a national search.

Chief Shields has been a change agent throughout her 25-year career, where she rose from the rank of beat officer to the Chief of the Atlanta Police Department.

She also understands strategy, tactics and the need to produce results in police work, which she did as chief, including a three-year decline in felonies. 

Tragedy struck her city last year with the killing of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer, a tragedy all too familiar to us in Louisville and unfortunately, too many cities across America.

And when it became clear that a big change was needed to start the healing process in the city she loved, she put her city before herself and stepped down.

One of the things about Erika Shields that impressed me was that she said ours was the only chief position in America that she was interested in – because she sees an opportunity to recreate policing and for LMPD to be the best police department in the country. And it was clear that she has the passion for police work, along with the skills and experience to achieve the reform we need. That’s why she was the UNANIMOUS choice of our 8-person diverse interview panel.  

Chief Shields will be sworn in on January 19th and her top two priorities will be to reduce gun violence and build police-community trust.

She will implement feedback from Hilliard Heintze, which is completing the top-to-bottom review of LMPD that I called for to find areas where we need to improve and models from around the country to help guide us.

That work includes doing more to ensure that implicit bias training is more thoroughly understood and implemented throughout the police force – and all of Metro Government. And, recruiting and retaining more women and people of color to serve as police officers is important.

And we need to support the good officers we have now by paying them competitive salaries, so we don’t train and then lose them to higher-paying law enforcement agencies. And we’re advocating for new state laws, policies and state funding streams to promote mental wellness amongst officers, and by pushing to criminalize the practice of “doxing” – or releasing home addresses and other private information of public officials.

Yes, we must hold our police officers to a high standard. But we must also give them the support needed to help us take on community challenges, like an unacceptable level of gun violence. 

We must all be appalled by our level of gun violence – 173 homicides in a single year in 2020, and far too many so far this year – and commit to doing everything we can to reverse this heartbreaking and infuriating loss of human life and human potential.

There is no singular cause for these tragedies, but I appreciate the changes made by Chief Yvette Gentry to address violent crime, and I want to thank her for her service to our city and for taking on the incredibly difficult challenge of leading our police department over these last few months.

As we look ahead, one thing we know by now is that we can’t arrest our way out of this challenge, and that’s why we’re also addressing violent crime by launching the Group Violence Intervention – or GVI – initiative.

GVI is a community-driven effort that focuses on the groups at highest risk for being either victims or perpetrators of violence. It’s a partnership between community members, social service agencies and law enforcement who work to identify those at-risk and intervene by providing information so they understand where continued violence will lead them – and often, their loved ones. And just as importantly, we will help them fully understand the services and programs that are available to them, so they know they have the opportunity to change the course of their lives. They have the ability and resources to rewrite their own stories into stories of victory.

GVI has proven successful in helping other cities reduce violent crime, and I’m hopeful in its potential to complement all of our efforts to reduce crime and gun violence and make our city safer.

The bottom line in all of this is that every person deserves to be safe and healthy in their homes, their streets, their communities, their businesses.  Just as they deserve equal access to opportunity.

That is the vision that my team and I have been working to create for the last ten years and that we will be working even harder to bring to life every day for the two years remaining in my term as your mayor. 

We will take the next crucial steps now, and we have to take them together.  Because the challenges we’re facing are too big for government to solve on its own. They’re too big for the private sector to solve, and too big to solve through the action of individuals, or schools or non-profits or houses of worship. 

But when you put all of those together, transformation is possible. Anything is possible.

We’ve seen it over the past year – signs of the deep reserves of compassion, innovation and energy among the people of Louisville to make our hometown healthier, safer, more equitable and more unified.

In the fight against Covid-19, we have incredible allies, particularly in our faith community, including organizations like Muslim Americans for Compassion, which provided meals to frontline workers, among other contributions, led by Rotarian Dr. Muhammad Babar.

Metro Government also formed partnerships with houses of worship like St. Stephen Church, which tended to its congregation through virtual services and served as host for COVID-19 testing.

Community leaders created A Path Forward, expanding our city’s racial equity work. GLI has established the Business Council to End Racism. And companies like Humana, Norton Healthcare, Brown-Forman, Thornton’s and YUM! Brands have all made multi-million-dollar commitments to fighting systemic racism in Louisville.

Combine their commitments with those from foundation partners like the James Graham Brown Foundation, the Gheens Foundation, CE&S Foundation, Blue Meridian Partners, McKenzie Scott and others, and we’ve seen about $150 million of philanthropic commitment in the past year.

This illustrates a growing recognition that talent and ability are spread evenly throughout our city, but opportunity and access are not. It’s also a recognition that Louisville is a good place for a great return on philanthropic investment.

Here’s another example: Soon, we’ll see the completion of Louisville Urban League’s $52 million Norton Sports Health Athletics & Learning Complex in the Russell neighborhood.  Metro Government invested the first $10 million in this project and it’s incredibly exciting to anticipate its opening. I‘m confident that this facility will help develop future scholars and Olympians who will make our city and our country proud. And it will help us build on the roughly $1 billion of economic investments we’re seeing in west Louisville - a down payment on the overall need.

And look at what those business and philanthropic commitments are making possible:

I mentioned Evolve502 earlier. In 2020, the Evolve502 scholarship was funded and launched. This will give every eligible Jefferson County Public Schools graduate in the 2021-24 classes the opportunity to pursue – tuition free – an associate's degree, career credential, or 60 hours of credit to transfer to a four-year university. Think about that! If you’re a JCPS high school student, higher education is now available to you cost free! This is a game-changer for our young people and our city.  

These are just a few examples of the energy I’m seeing in organizations throughout our city, including in the Rotary Club of Louisville, which already has an outstanding history of promoting opportunity through programs like the Rotary Promise Scholarship, which opens the doors to college for students from four local high schools.

And now, Rotary is building on that work. Thank you for sharing with me and our community your Community Impact Committee’s “Agenda for Louisville’s Future,” which acknowledges that “business leaders need to support the role of the Black community.” 

Thank you for your commitment to recruit more Black members. Thank you for providing grants to support the Family Community Clinic, the Louisville Sustainability Council, and West End School amongst others.

And I want to amplify one line in your “Agenda for Louisville’s Future” document so that it’s heard in every home, every office, school and house of worship in our city. Recognizing that we must have frank discussions about our city’s past, present and future, but also must act, the Rotary declares: “Simply talking about these issues will not get the job done!”

We have the potential in 2021 to make historic progress. To send a loud message to America that Louisville is a city of compassion, community, innovation and resilience. 

This is the year to take action. 

On Monday, we’ll celebrate Dr. King’s birthday. What would he say about this moment? I believe he’d tell us to seize this historic opportunity with what he once described as the “fierce urgency of now.”

Let’s follow his example, so that in one year, two years, ten years, 50 years, people will look back at this moment in our history and say that if 2020 was a low point, 2021 was a turning point.

A turning point where looked at the racism both in our history and in our lives today and together, we said, “Enough.”

When we looked into the face of hatred and division, masquerading as patriotism, and together, said, “Enough.”  We are better than this. We have the potential to overcome pain, and loss and fear and ignorance and tragedy.

Those are  the steps we must take.

Let’s commit ourselves to our families, neighbors, our city and our future so that the lesson our children and grandchildren learn about this period is about more than the tragedies we experienced, but the transformation we created in response, together.

Thank you all and may God bless the people of Louisville.

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